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'Potential inefficients at best, criminal at worst': The girl problem and juvenile delinquency in Western Australia 1907-1933Rosemary Kerr
Faculty of Education
Curtin University of Technology
This paper examines the attitudes and responses of West Australian Government agencies and the community towards delinquent girls during the first third of this century. What is most evident about the history of the policing of girls and women is the prevalence of contradictions between protection and control. Research on female juvenile delinquency to date has tended to focus on the policing of female sexuality, placing all girls and women into one homogenous group. Certainly contemporary community attitudes were concerned about aberrant sexual behaviour and will be discussed in this paper. However, I believe a closer examination of attitudes towards intellectually disabled girls is needed to fully understand the moral panic that gripped Western Australia towards the end of World War I and the lead up to the Depression period.
Much of the contemporary general discourse on delinquency focused on the need to put youth on the path towards good and useful citizenship. Stable nuclear family life combined with schooling and post compulsory training were considered essential factors in development of good, efficient citizenship. However, the notion of citizenship was highly gendered. Boys, who were considered potential full citizens, were given priority in terms of policy developments and services for their care and reformation. In the case of girls, citizenship revolved around their potential motherhood status rather than any future success in the labour market. This gendered conception of citizenship was informed by such pressing issues as a falling birthrate, racial purity, national security and national efficiency.
Classification of juvenile delinquents was organised along gender specific lines. Boys were generally committed for crimes against property. Controlling the behaviour of girls included moral policing as well as dealing with civil and criminal misdemeanours. Jill Matthews points out that middle-class opinions dominated the discourse on female delinquency which emphasised the ideal of the 'good woman'. The role of the state was to intervene and correct behaviour where girls threatened the societal ideal of motherhood within marriage or their activities would blemish their social standing as potential respectable wives and mothers. One group in particular, intellectually disabled girls, were labelled the new potentially criminal class, replacing to some extent earlier concerns about the working classes. These girls were excluded from maternal citizenship status because they were believed incapable of contributing to the population of efficient citizens. Considered to possess unbridled sexuality and moral weakness these girls posed a significant threat to national efficiency drives.
Psychology played a significant role during the 1920s as a diagnostic tool in assessing and labelling delinquent girls. Hailed as the most effective modern, scientific method for accurate 'diagnosis' it had many enthusiasts in the community. However, associated overtones of eugenics and the failure of the 1929 Mental Deficiency Act severely curtailed expansion of government psychology services until the post World War II period. In Western Australia the realities of policy and practice often lagged far behind the high ideals of the legislation encompassed in the State Children Act 1907 and its later amendments. Official parsimony and government inertia during the period under study resulted in poor standards of care, education and training for all youths labelled delinquent.
Prior to the 1907 State Children Act juvenile delinquents and cases of crimes against children were held in the court of petty sessions. From here children were either sent to prison or the cases were dismissed. Penny Hetherington has noted the 1874 Industrial Schools Act made provision for girls to be imprisoned until 16 years of age and boys until 14 years. It also allowed for arbitrary detention terms of 2 to 7 years which resulted in many children being in custody far longer than under the former system. The 1893 Act to Establish Industrial and Reformatory Schools envisaged government institutions and extended the definition of childhood by enabling state supervision until 21 years of age. The government did not open any new reformatories. Instead it established the Government Receiving Home at Subiaco in 1894 which provided a home for neglected, destitute and delinquent children before placement in a denominational institution. The only government run reformatory, an institution for delinquent boys on Rottnest Island, was closed in 1901. In 1905 the Public Education Act introduced school truancy clauses which allowed for fines and detention of truants in industrial schools.
The 1907 State Children Act legislated for the care, protection and reformation of neglected, destitute and juvenile delinquent non-indigenous children. The act was very wide ranging since it also encompassed infant life protection, truancy from school, street trading and public performing by children. As a result of the Act the State Children Department (later Child Welfare Department) was created to provide administration. At the same time, in line with contemporary progressive thinking about juvenile delinquency, children's courts were established throughout the state. Under the Act the department inspectors had wide powers of detention for neglected and destitute children. Only police, however , were able to apprehend juvenile delinquents.
In May 1908 the first children's courts were established at Perth, Fremantle, country centres such as Albany, Bunbury, Geraldton, Kalgoorlie and numerous smaller centres in the wheat belt and South West of the State. The first case at the principal Court in Perth was heard on 17 June 1908. Under the Act the Police Magistrate was also the special magistrate for the court but in his absence, which was frequently the case due to other duties, two Justices of the Peace presided. In 1915 the Act was amended to provide for any persons, male or female, to be appointed by the Governor as members of the Children's Courts. By June of that year 13 women had been appointed : five in Perth; two in Fremantle; three in Boulder and three in Kalgoorlie. Many women's groups believed female influence in the courts was desirable to protect the interests of girls and provide a woman's viewpoint for all cases before the court. This influence proved to be short-lived because women were removed from the metropolitan children's court benches and replaced by a Stipendary Magistrate in 1929. Vocal protests were made to no avail. The real reason for their dismissal is not clear. Department records reveal dissatisfaction with inconsistent decisions and a clear lack of legal understanding but this is refuted by Arthur Lovekin, Honorary Spec ial Magistrate to the courts from 1921-1929, in his publications on the work of the courts. Country courts could still request female appointments but it was not encouraged by the department. Women were not reinstated to the Children's Court bench until 1948.
Central to the idea of the children's courts was the removal of children from the adult criminal environments of police lockups, courts and prisons. Remand rooms were established in the court building. However, the lofty ideals espoused in the legislation were not upheld in practice and the court rooms and remand quarters were repeatedly criticised by the public and the Honorary officers who used them until well after World War Two. Arthur Lovekin, associated with the Perth court for 20 years described them as 'disgusting', where department officers were 'packed in like sardines' and the two small remand rooms had no sanitation and filthy, verminous beds. Children would be crowded into these rooms, often for days, while they waited to be 'rescued' from their corrupting environments. Criticism of the remand rooms in the 1919 Select Committee report on the State Children Department where they were described as a 'veritable Black Hole' also failed to prompt improvements. By the 1940s boys and girls were being held at grossly inadequate quarters at the police lock up while the government dithered about if it needed a remand centre and where it should be built. Professor H. L. Fowler of the Psychology Department at the University of Western Australia publicly protested in The West Australian claiming that the government would make delinquents of the children by their shabby treatment and conditions.
The appalling remand facilities were just part of the State's neglect of children's needs. This neglect stemmed from the long time poor economic circumstances of the state which followed the waning of the 1890s gold rush. As a consequence official parsimony underpinned the rhetoric of care and protection as the chief characteristic of child welfare policy in Western Australia. In addition to this many government officers and legislators were often unaware of the true conditions surrounding care and reformation of children and so did not act to remedy them. Unwilling and unable to provide institutions the state was obliged to rely on the voluntary sector to provide services. Reformatories for girls were operated by the Roman Catholic closed Order of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd with the Home of the Good Shepherd established in 1908, the Salvation Army which opened its girls institution in the first instance at Collie in 1901 but moved to a new site, Seaforth, at Gosnells in July 1920, and the Methodists who closed their reformatory at Monmouth Street, Mount Lawley in early 1924 after only seven years because of small admission numbers.
Girls were committed by the courts to these institutions for criminal charges such as stealing, civil misdemeanours such as drunkenness in the street or moral concerns relating to their behaviour or home environment. Children's court evidence books reveal committals relating to the charge of 'likely to lapse into a career of vice or crime' or 'uncontrollable' often focused on girls who associated with prostitutes, frequented coffee houses, theatres, Chinese dens or whose family members included a Chinese male. Entertainments such as picture shows were condemned from numerous quarters of the community since it was believed they encouraged 'smooging' and precocious sexuality. Checking the spread of venereal disease resulted in girls being institutionalised for medical treatment and behaviour correction from the 1920s. Leonie Stella and Judith Allen have suggested that the concern over venereal disease from 1915 onward was connected with the return of service men from World War I, many of whom were venereally diseased, but it was women who were targeted for surveillance to ensure recovery of the nation's white population.
Prior to the 1920s the State Children Department was keen for all delinquents to be committed for at least two years because of the view that 'the moral, educational and industrial training of the inmates...can only be accomplished in many cases by long, patient and persevering efforts on the part of the managers'. Records reveal that most girls sent to such institutions were generally over the compulsory school age of 14 years. Consequently little schooling was undertaken even though many girls were educationally backward. Instead, work was considered an essential part of the reformative process. Laundry, dressmaking, needlework and gardening comprised the bulk of the training given to enable girls to rehabilitate themselves. The aim was to give them skills take up domestic service in the wider community and later run efficient family homes. However, the Salvation Army never managed to establish any form of comprehensive training and was criticised by the community and department alike for its lack of progressive training programmes. By contrast the Home of the Good Shepherd, with its commercial laundry, was considered to provide good training for domestic work . Only in 1943 is there any record of a complaint made, this time by the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, about the lack of variety of skills taught to girls. The department's response was that the girls were 'educated in good citizenship [which] goes beyond the sense ordinarily understood by the term education'. The poor standard of education attained by most girls in the institutions only became an issue of concern to authorities when the demand for domestic servants began to wane in the 1940s and the aspirations of girls focused on careers in nursing, hairdressing and dressmaking. Many just did not have the educational qualifications to enter these professions. Attempts were made to provide correspondence courses to bridge the gap but it appears the girls were given little help or encouragement and were criticised by the authorities for not being able to complete any courses.
Although the moral rescue and control of girls is often emphasised in research on child welfare, and indeed it occupied the attention of women's groups such as the Women's Service Guilds (WSG), National Council of Women (NCW), Labour Women's Organisation (LWO) and the wider community, Children's Court records reveal high levels of petty thieving charges against girls. Members of the Children's Courts were deeply concerned and campaigned for greater probation powers to be granted for all children. In particular they wanted to prevent girls who were 'to become mothers of the race' from having a conviction for petty theft. When the court's Special Magistrate Arthur Lovekin entered the Legislative Council in 1919 he immediately pushed through an amendment to the State Children Act which included greater discretion for the courts to grant probation. Until then probation under the Act provided for supervision of delinquents until the age of 18 years with no possibility for shorter terms. The extended use of probation was more than a progressive measure. Institutions were overcrowded and the state had no means to provide such services. The system saved the state expense by committing the child to its parents who were then 'compelled to keep the child'. It was also an attempt to strengthen family ties and alert parents to their responsibilities. It was claimed that many delinquents youths were the result of a lack of parental control 'brought about by parents wishing to indulge their love of pleasure outside of the home and leaving children to fend for themselves'. Stella points out that the attitudes of authorities placed heavy responsibilities on mothers for the control of both their daughters and husbands. Effectively, a child on probation placed the whole family under surveillance. The amendment resulted in the increased use of probation which forced two boys reformatories and the Methodist girls' home to be closed due to small admission numbers. The focus of work for many departmental officers changed to a model of working with families rather than removing children.
The 1919 amendment did not bring immediate sweeping changes to the system of dealing with delinquent girls compared with boys. For probation to be effective special officers were required to monitor and guide children and families. Despite vigorous campaigns from women's groups such as the WSG, NCW and LWO for probation officers for both boys and girls, the department only appointed a male probation officer in 1921. It was claimed by the department that the numbers of girls on probation was too small to warrant an officer and the continued use of women inspectors would suffice. This was in spite of the Children's Courts informing the department that without a woman probation officer the choices available were institutionalisation or dismissal with a caution. Both were considered unsatisfactory methods of dealing many of the cases before the courts. Another factor in the refusal of the department to appoint such an officer stemmed from the attitude of the department Secretary throughout the 1920s, Sydney Watson, who believed that older girls should be committed to institutions and not placed on probation because they tended to be immoral and therefore needed stricter control. The age of consent, which was 16 years, was never brought into consideration regarding these girls indicating the law was more about defining male sexual behaviour than protection of girls and their rights.
Watson's attitude may also have been influenced by the surge in community interest in child welfare issues concerning juvenile delinquency, intellectually disabled children, eugenics and the relatively new science of psychology. Conferences were held in 1916,1919 and 1920 by social reform lobby groups such as the Child Welfare Bureau. Prominent medical, psychological and social welfare workers discussed measures to control and eliminate these social problems.Their views were widely published in the local press, in particular the Daily News, which was owned and edited by the eugenicist Arthur Lovekin, and The West Australian. It was believed that the absence of fathers during World War I had resulted in increased juvenile delinquency rates. Successful post- war reconstruction relied on a well ordered, efficient society. Records of these conferences reveal deep concern about the perceived connections between criminal and anti-social behaviour and intellectual disability. Intellectually disabled girls were considered a particular menace because of the double bind they presented. The common view was that these girls needed close supervision in institutions since they were either the prey of unscrupulous men or were a 'dangerous cause of moral weakness' because of their inability to control their passions.
The community had come alive to the issue of intellectual disability over a number of years. Fox and Carman-Brown point to the introduction of school medical inspections in 1906, while others indicate the influence of inquiries into Claremont Asylum and Public Health bills which revealed concern over facilities and control over intellectually disabled people. The 1919-1920 Royal Commission into the State Children Department called for services for intellectually disabled children and the introduction of psychology as a diagnostic tool in the children's courts. In her Annual Report 1918-1919 on school medical examinations, the eugenicist Dr. Roberta Jull, articulated what was becoming a popular conception of intellectually disabled children. She stated that at least one percent of school children were ' morons' and
'As such potential inefficients at the best and criminal at worst, yet absolutely nothing is being done to give them the specialised teaching which is so necessary, nor to segregate them in order to prevent further reproduction of the type.... They produce also many of the incorrigible and truant cases, sources of trouble in schools and the children's courts and the inmates of reformatories and charitable institutions of all kinds.'At the 1919 conference on Juvenile Depravity, Professor Berry from Melbourne University reiterated this view stating that in America intellectual disability was recognised as the largest cause of crime. Ethel Stoneman, a trained psychologist and later one of the most influential figures in the state's responses to concerns about intellectually disabled people, added to the debate by warning that the 'backward' were more dangerous than 'imbeciles' and 'morons' because they often appeared normal and were free to produce large families of social inefficients. Stoneman advocated segregation and sterilisation as ' the only scientific and logical method'. A deputation from the conference to the Premier, Mitchell, pointed to the large numbers of intellectually disabled children coming through the children's courts. Just how many children brought before the courts were really intellectually disabled is impossible to gauge since the records rarely give more than a brief note and the services of a psychologist, Thomas Hill, were not introduced until 1924. In addition, so called diseases of the mind caused by masturbation were also believed to cause temporary mental defect which led to offences but could be cured by committal to a reformatory.
Without legislation to enable sterilisation programmes segregation was considered the best approach to controlling intellectually disabled people. The government response was to support Jull's efforts to negotiate the opening the Anglican institution Redhill for boys in 1921. This home was closed in 1922 and the small number of boys was transferred to the new Salvation Army home for intellectually disabled boys at Seaforth where they received vocational training under Thomas Hill. Jull, Stoneman and women's organisations advocated homes for girls as well as boys because as Jull pointed out:
In later life their influence for evil in the community is no less, since it is from their ranks neglectful and ignorant mothers are drawn, prostitutes are recruited and many illegitimate children born.However, no new services were established for girls. They either remained with their families or continued to be placed at Claremont Asylum, the Salvation Army home at Cottesloe or the Home of the Good Shepherd. The campaign for a government home for girls, lead by the WSG, only faltered with the onset of the Depression which resulted in building plans being cancelled. The preference for services for boys over girls was a reflection of the prevailing attitude in the community that boys should be given the opportunity to be at least partial citizens by means of a degree of self-sufficiency.
The lobbying for a home for intellectually disabled girls was part of a broader campaign carried out during the 1920s to bring all intellectually disabled people under state control. Women's organisations, and in particular the WSG, supported Stoneman in her effort for legislation and services to be established for the control of intellectually disabled people. In 1926 Stoneman was appointed State Psychologist, responsible to the Education and Health Departments. She opened a clinic at the old Observatory and consulted both public and private patients. Legislation was drafted soon after her appointment.
Many Children's Court members were aware that control over intellectually disabled children was usually only possible if they came through the courts as delinquents. The courts quickly took up the services of Ethel Stoneman claiming her reports on children allowed the bench to classify children on the basis of a scientific system. This change in attitude is indicative of the growing awareness that intellectual disability and criminality were not necessarily non committal.
Separate government institutions were advocated for each type of child. A government farm school and garden school were suggested to provide opportunities for intellectually disabled people to lead productive lives, segregated from society. Backward children needed opportunity classes through the education system. While treatment for juvenile delinquents required terms in a reformatory or probation. Department officers at the Education Department, Health Department and Child Welfare Department all concurred with these suggestions but the state was financially strapped and barely able to pay for existing social services.
By the time the 1929 Mental Deficiency Bill came before parliament, Stoneman had reversed her views on sterilisation, placing her at odds with such prominent members of the community as Jean Beadle, Arthur Lovekin and Dr. Atholston Saw who believed it was the way to stamp out defectives from the population. Stoneman was not alone in her views although the voice of opposition was by no means as widespread. G. McLean, President of the State School Teachers' Union, although a longtime advocate for segregation he was one of the few public voices to caution about legislation based on eugenics :
Let us beware of our enthusiasm for legislating for mental deficients, that we do not set up an itch for finding mental deficiency where it does not exist.Others suggested that eugenics was not an exact science and knowledge about intellectual disability was too limited to be sure that sterilisation was appropriate.
The 1929 Mental Deficiency Bill failed to become law for a number of complex reasons principally related to personality clashes and an uneasiness about the implications of sterilisation measures. It created a situation where governments refused to provide services for intellectually disabled people where there was no statutory control. As part of Depression cost cutting measures the State Psychology Clinic was closed in 1930 amidst a flurry of public protest. Promises were made to reopen the clinic as soon as economic conditions improved but it was not until 1950 when the government provided another clinic.
During the 1930s eugenics lost favour as a solution to the drive for national efficiency. The Depression placed a less moral perspective on poverty. It was recognised that the labour market was integrated with the economy and beyond individual control. Notions concerning the connection heredity and intellectual disability became less widespread in the community. Juvenile delinquent girls began to be described as abnormal rather than subnormal but it was well into the 1930s before the language of eugenics lost prominence in the discourse on juvenile delinquency.
With the situation surrounding calls for services for intellectually disabled girls almost at a stalemate, women's groups turned their attention, once again, to moral policing of all girls. The incidence of venereal disease in girls before the courts and wards of the state began to rise from 1928. Whether 'amateur prostitution' was on the rise as girls tried to make ends meet it is difficult to confirm but venereal disease was viewed as a serious threat to the white race.
Institutionalisation was considered the most effective means to treat girls both medically and morally. The views of numerous women's groups who supported holding these girls is illustrated by the opinion of Mrs. Vallance, a member of a women's organisations deputation to the minister in July 1933.
These girls are not only a menace to themselves; they are a menace to the community. They are untrained and because they have a false idea of enjoyment they have gone astray... The task which is required is to give the girls back their self-respect, to give them a proper balance in regard to enjoyment and make them once more self-respecting and self-supporting citizens.A desultory attempt by the Medical Department to provide four rooms at the Old Women's Home in Fremantle to house and treat delinquent girls and wards of the state suffering from venereal disease resulted in howls of protest from women's groups. They pointed out that Fremantle port was an inappropriate place for these girls and the elderly women resident at the home should not have to associate with 'refractory girls'. After countless abscondings by way of filing through the window bars, the Child Welfare Department was forced to act and negotiated the establishment of new accommodation at the Salvation Army's Seaforth institution in 1935.
Women's organisations lobbied ministers for a woman probation officer using motherhood as the linchpin of their campaign. In July 1933 a deputation asked the Minister :
Why is it that boys should have the care and attention of a probation office and the girls, who are the prospective mothers of the state, are left more or less to be placed either in an institution or left to go on their own?I appears this kind of argument held little sway with the authorities. The appointment of a woman probation officer came about only when the Secretary of the Department informed the minister of increased juvenile delinquency rates during the Depression and the Stipendary Magistrate F F Horgan, first appointed in 1929, professed to be at a loss with what to do with many girls before the courts.
Florence Boneham, a double certificate nurse with mothercraft and infant welfare training began duties from 1 November 1933. These included supervision of juvenile delinquent girls on probation and in institutions, treatment of venereal disease cases as well as assistance to unmarried mothers. Integral to her work was moral policing of girls through visits to parks, dance halls and theatres, thereby replicating much of the work of women police. Her work as an inspector with department since 1929 made her a highly qualified expert in the field since there was no social work training available in Western Australia. This was in stark contrast with the male probation officer, A H Bulley, who had work in Government Stores prior to his joining to the department in 1918.
Women's organisations continued to campaign for a training hostel for juvenile delinquent girls, a garden school for intellectually disabled girls, the reinstatement of women onto the Children's court bench, a state psychology clinic and more women police to assist Boneham throughout the 1930s and 1940s. In the meantime juvenile delinquent girls were still committed Claremont Asylum or Heathcote, causing great embarrassment to the government, simply because there was no where else they could be placed. It was not until the economic boom from mining, beginning in the 1960s, that governments began to establish long called for children's services originally earmarked as post World War II reconstruction.
|Please cite as: Kerr, R. (1998). 'Potential inefficients at best, criminal at worst': The girl problem and juvenile delinquency in Western Australia 1907-1933. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 1998. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/1998/kerr.html|